Broadband settlement bill on hold

A bill earmarking $8 million for a possible Idaho Education Network settlement was derailed in the House Thursday.

Senate Bill 1428 is now one of the last pieces of the puzzle, as lawmakers tried to adjourn the 2016 legislative session. The House will return to session Friday morning; the Senate adjourned sine die, wrapping up its session, at 9:02 p.m.

Legislative leaders want the $8 million in general fund money to pursue a potential settlement with Education Networks of America and CenturyLink, the two lead vendors on the mothballed school broadband project. The bill passed a divided Senate Wednesday. (Check our Bill Tracker to see how your senator voted.)

The House attempted to take up the bill late Thursday afternoon. In a procedural move, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle asked House colleague agree unanimously to take up the bill immediately.

Boyle New
Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, objected. The House went into recess, and did not bring up the bill again.

“I don’t believe we should be settling lawsuits like this,” said Boyle, an outspoken critic of the state’s Idaho Education Network contract. “I think this is setting a really bad precedent.”

Education Networks of America and CenturyLink have not sued the state. Both have filed tort claims — a precursor to a possible lawsuit.

House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill have said the vendors’ legal claims could reach $11 million.

The House will take up SB 1428 Friday, Bedke said Thursday evening.

In other Statehouse action Thursday:

Student mobility. One lawmaker called it a “pittance.” Another said it was “disservice” to some students.

But the Senate set its reservations aside long enough to pass a stopgap “student mobility” bill on a 34-1 vote.

House Bill 603 would provide a little more than $1 million to schools that experience enrollment growth during the school year. Supporters say the money would help virtual charter schools and alternative schools that accept at-risk transfer students.

Ward-Engelking
Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said the bill would provide funding for only eight schools that have experienced growth of at least 3 percent during the year — and doesn’t help students who transfer to other schools.

“I hope you realize that we may have to come back and do something more,” she said.

The Legislature is certainly going to revisit this complicated issue. HB 603 would be in effect for only three years, while a legislative interim committee takes a more detailed look at the entire school funding formula.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer conceded the state could do more to help growing schools — but not this year. “This is the best we can get,” said Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls.

Earlier this week, Mortimer’s committee voted to send the bill to the Senate floor for amendment — with Ward-Engelking and other senators hoping to expand the bill to cover more schools. Ultimately, the bill was left as is.

HB 603 now goes to Gov. Butch Otter, who vetoed a student mobility bill in 2015.

Leadership premiums. On a 27-8 vote, the Senate endorsed a bill to increase the minimum teacher leadership premium from $850 to $900.

The bill attempts to address two legislative concerns with the $16.6 million premium program. After the state issued an error-laden report on the 2014-15 premiums, lawmakers honed in on two points: districts that awarded part-time teachers less than $850, despite the minimum set by law; and districts that gave a bonus to every teacher.

The leadership premiums were supposed to reward teachers who take on added roles — such as mentoring or assuming hard-to-fill jobs. Lawmakers said they never intended for districts to give out across-the-board premiums.

In essence, House Bill 627 would render that impossible. Districts would still get the same pot of premium money, which breaks down to $850 per teacher. But with a $900 minimum, districts could no longer give a premium to every teacher.

That provision drew opposition from Idaho Education Association executive director Robin Nettinga, who testified against the bill in a Thursday morning Senate Education Committee hearing.

After the committee sent the bill to the floor on a party-line vote, it received Senate approval on nearly a party-line vote. Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, joined the Senate’s seven Democrats in opposition.

Spending bills. While the broadband settlement budget is on hold, Thursday brought a flurry of activity on loose ends of the education budget:

  • Both houses easily approved a trailer bill that includes $2.7 million to provide matching money for school and library broadband systems and $2 million to launch the state’s STEM education fund. This trailer passed the Senate on a 33-2 vote; the House vote was 62-3.
  • The House passed a trailer bill to put $270,000 of general fund money into a new Office of School Safety and Security. The office would inspect schools on a three-year rotating basis, looking for potential security threats. The Legislature has already voted to create the office, and Otter signed that bill into law Thursday afternoon.
  • The House also voted 64-1 to pass a supplemental budget bill to provide $9.1 million to fund Otter’s newly signed literacy initiative, and $100,000 for grants for schools participating in a school innovation program created by House Bill 570. Rep. Kathleen Sims, R- Coeur d’Alene, cast the lone dissenting vote. Hours later, the Senate followed suit, passing the supplemental budget bill 35-0.
  • The House followed the Senate’s lead and put $2.3 million into the STEM Action Center — including $2 million to upgrade computer science curriculum and provide teacher training. The vote was 62-5.
  • The House also approved the State Department of Education’s $14.2 million operating budget, on a 67-0 vote.

Career-technical teachers. The Senate voted unanimously to provide a $3,000 boost in the career ladder for some career-technical teachers.

Supporters say the bill is needed to recruit and retain career-technical teachers — and keep programs going.

House Bill 630 heads to Otter’s desk. Meanwhile, the state will pick up the $1.7 million tab from the Public Education Stabilization Fund, a state rainy-day account.

Career counseling. In another unanimous vote, the Senate endorsed House Bill 629, which sets up the formula for distributing $5 million for high school college and career counselors.

Dean Mortimer
Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls

Mortimer honored. Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer was singled out for one of the Senate’s annual honors Thursday evening.

Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, was awarded the flag that flew over the Senate rotunda during the 2016 session. Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill praised Mortimer for his work on Senate Education and the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

“Students around this state are blessed because of Sen. Mortimer,” said Hill, R-Rexburg.

Each session, leadership awards the rotunda flag to a member of the Senate.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this report.